You're Not White, You're Gay: What 7th Graders Taught Me About Race and Surviving Middle School
I hated school for the most part. I was always the smallest in my class. I learned more at home than I did at school (I was already spelling words before kindergarten) because my mom and dad were always teaching me. I felt bored and vulnerable when I was at school. Being the last one picked for kickball and the last one standing in the spelling bee puts a big target on your back for the bullies. It wasn't long before the cool kids were calling me a fag and tripping me in the hallways. That was just Elementary school.
Middle school was another level of hell. Puberty had kicked in and I had discovered that the bullies may have been right about at least one thing. I was kind of obsessed with one of the guys on the soccer team that was in my Social Studies class. His legs were so beautiful that I had a hard time concentrating and got that tingly feeling that middle school boys hope they never get in public.
When I decided to become a teacher, one of my goals was to make school a better place for students than it had been for me. That's harder to do than I ever imagined. My first try at teaching was in North Carolina. I was fresh out of college and still in the closet. I made a lot of mistakes. My biggest one was not being honest with myself or my students about who I truly was, because they knew and they knew I was hiding it, so it became this big deal and overshadowed everything else I was trying to do. I got a second chance in San Francisco and I knew this would be different. I was older now. I had been out of the closet for years and was very comfortable with myself. I was in a loving and stable relationship. And it was San Francisco, so I didn't feel like the only gay guy in town.
I didn't "come out" to my students. I simply put photos of me and my partner (we weren't married yet) on my desk like most of my colleagues did. Middle school students are social creatures and will take up all of your time with endless personal questions if you let them, so I started off the year with a rule: You can ask me personal questions if you want, but not during class. Class time is for learning science and math. If you want to talk about something else, you can talk to me before or after school, or during lunch.
I braced myself for the mob of students waiting after school to demand to know if I was gay. No one showed. No one cared. They already knew, of course, and the fact that I had put a picture of me and my boyfriend up for the world to see showed them that I didn't care if they knew. There was no scandal and no drama, so they moved on. As the year progressed and the students got to know me better, some students would drop by and ask questions like, "how long have you and your boyfriend been together?" or "do you have kids?" or "where does your family live?"
One day I was running late between classes resetting the lab equipment for the next group. The students in the next class were lined up in the hallway waiting to come in and another student walked by and said, "Ha! Ha! You have Mr. Gay for Science!" It sounded like the whole line erupted into, "You shouldn't be so homophobic. Mr. Brown is the best science teacher we've ever had. Do you even know any gay people or are you just being ignorant?" It might have been the proudest moment of my life. My students were defending me in my absence to one of their peers. My students were defending all gay people to one of their peers. I had to wipe my face before greeting them and starting class.
Many of my students at this school were Latino and had been in the US for less than a year and were still learning English. California has a troubled history with bilingual education. The result for me was that I had a 7th grade biology class with 32 students, four of which were native English speakers, two spoke Cantonese, and the rest spoke Spanish. I only speak English, so teaching biology was going to be a challenge. I went to my principal for advice and he told me not to worry about it, just do the best I could because they'd be lucky to be working a taco truck one day so biology wasn't that important. I was furious. I made it my mission right then to teach those kids some science. They were used to just sliding by, coloring pictures of the flag of their home country (I'm not kidding), so they resisted at first, but I can be stubborn. So they learned. And they liked it. And they practiced English and got better. And they taught me some Spanish. I bonded with those kids in a special way because I don't think anyone expected them to learn science before and I didn't think they were too stupid to learn it.
Image credits: Me (faces blurred to protect students' privacy)
Some of those kids started hanging out in my classroom during lunch to work on their homework. I knew that it was really to find a safe space during lunch to get away from the bullies on the school yard and I was glad to provide it. I mostly kept to myself grading papers, but sometimes they would invite me into their conversations. One day they started talking about how "white people" would never understand them. White people thought they were all from Mexico and that their parents all worked at a taco truck and that they were illegals. This conversation went on for a while before I interjected.
"Do you think that I believe all of those things?"
"Of course not, Mr. Brown, but White People do."
"But I'm white."
"You're not white, you're gay."
That caught me by surprise and I didn't know what to say for a second. I thought maybe we were having a language problem.
"I'm white and I'm gay. Some people are Latino and gay, or black and gay."
They talked to each other in Spanish for a minute and then one of them said, "You're not just white, you're gay. You know what it means to not be white." We had a wonderful conversation in which they told me how bad they felt that I had to put up with so much hatred. They had heard their parents' friends talk about gay people in a hateful way and they hoped that I didn't have to hear that stuff.
And there it was. A beautiful kernel of truth. For these kids, racism wasn't about the color of one's skin but about the privilege it represents. My students recognized that, even though I'm white, I face discrimination and hatred because I'm gay. They identify with that. That gives me hope. It gives me hope that our conversations about racism can evolve beyond the simplistic white v. black v. latino v. asian, etc., and into something more constructive such as the privilege inequalities that are entangled in not just race but poverty, gender, and homophobia. It also showed me that the path to progress is being honest and getting to know each other. I gained the trust of these students by being true to who I am. Because they trusted me, they allowed me inside their carefully constructed walls and not only allowed me to teach them Science, but also allowed me to share their life experiences. In return, they got to share some of mine. Now, they know more about gay people and I know more about immigrants.
I became a teacher, in part, to help make schools a safer and better place for students. I think I did that. I didn't expect that they would do the same for me.